Saturday, September 29, 2012

Poem: Cliche Came Out of its Cage by CS Lewis

Apologies to my readership for the recent silences! Life has been a little brisk for me lately to get a lot of reading and reviewing done.

That said, I'm very excited about some new books on their way to me. Vision Forum has a new two-book series, Men of Grit, which looks to be a twenty-first-century slant on one of my favourite genres: the nineteenth-century boys' adventure story. While many contemporary authors have tried their hands at writing stories "in the style of (Jane Austen, or Robert Louis Stevenson, or whoever)," these are usually not as satisfying as the originals because the solid worldview underpinning the originals is missing, replaced by cringeworthy political correctness or simply an unquestioning acceptance of ideas like feminism and Marxism. Men of Grit, on the other hand, appears to be written in a twenty-first century style but from a worldview as outdated as it is true, good, and beautiful. I'll look forward to reviewing those in due course.

In other news, I have been reading a very interesting book lately: The City of God by Saint Augustine of Hippo. If you could credit one book with constructing western Christendom as we know it, after the Bible, this would be it. Augustine can be challenging, but he is always interesting!

I started to read The City of God in order to learn more about the legal and historical roots of Christendom. I never expected to find myself neck-deep in one of my favourite subjects: cosmology. Other excellent books on this topic include Planet Narnia by Michael Ward and The Discarded Image by CS Lewis. Ever since I read Planet Narnia I've been trying to find out more on the hows and whys of medieval cosmology. One of my biggest questions was how medieval Christendom ever came to use pagan gods as symbols of the true, good, and beautiful. Amazingly, unexpectedly, I've discovered some incredible answers in The City of God. I'll look forward to sharing those with you at some future date, but right now I need to keep things short.

So, because I'm thinking of paganism, Christendom, and CS Lewis, I'll leave you with one of my favourite CS Lewis poems:

Cliche Came Out of Its Cage

1

You said 'The world is going back to Paganism.'
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia's fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it. By the hearth the white-armed venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. At the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen's children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears ...
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.

2

Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last Defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune). 

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Dancing Floor by John Buchan

On this side of a law degree, now that I have the mental energy to read some good books again, I've found myself revisiting a number of the books I swallowed whole as a teenager with so little discernment or real enjoyment. Mansfield Park and Emma were two of these, and Buchan's The Dancing Floor is the latest. I devoured it in a matter of hours one afternoon right at the beginning of my acquaintance with Buchan--about ten years ago--and never re-read it. For all that, it made a deep impression on me: like other books, like The Chronicles of Narnia and Jane Eyre, I'd say it was one of the essential books of my education (if you define education, with Charlotte Mason, as "the training of the affections", learning to love what is true, good, and beautiful).

This re-read was long overdue, and just as with the Austen books I've been re-reading lately, The Dancing Floor seemed almost a different book, with so much more to enjoy and digest in it than I remember.

The story, narrated by Sir Edward Leithen, a respected barrister, follows his friendships with two very different people and the peculiar, terrifying scenes they end up dragging him into. Vernon Milburne is still in his teens when Leithen meets him and is immediately struck by his unusual quality. Vernon, a wealthy orphan, comes from extremely prosaic English stock; he has embraced his parents' evangelical Calvinist religion and lives a life of strict physical and mental discipline.
For all his urbanity he had a plain, almost rugged, sagacity in ordinary affairs, a tough core like steel harness under a silk coat. That, I suppose, was the Calvinism in his blood.
His air of detachment, purpose and maturity stands in stark contrast to the other young men Leithen knows, but he seems to shroud himself with a suave politeness that mystifies everyone.
On inquiry I found that none of his friends forecast any special career for him; it would have seemed to them almost disrespectful to condescend upon such details. It was not what Vernon would do that fired their sluggish imaginations, but what they dimly conceived that he already was.
The secret of Vernon Milburne's strange character is one which he's closely guarded since early childhood. But he finds in Leithen someone he can confide in. Every year on the same night, Vernon Milburne dreams that he is waiting in a long suite of rooms for something, still far off, to come through the door. And every year he finds that the mysterious thing is one room closer; by now, he knows it is only a few years before he'll stand face to face with some terrible experience that will test him to the utmost and launch him upon the calling of his life.

The two friends both fight in the Great War, and emerge to find a world that has gone mad.
You remember that curious summer of 1919 when everybody was feverishly trying to forget the war. They were crazy days, when nobody was quite himself. Politicians talked and writers wrote clotted nonsense, statesmen chased their tails, the working man wanted to double his wages and halve his working hours at a time when the world was bankrupt, youth tried to make up for the four years of natural pleasure of which it had been cheated, and there was a general loosening of screws and a rise in temperature.
The whole thing revolts Vernon's conventional soul (he is "like an Israelitish prophet at a feast of Baal") but nothing revolts him as much as the rude, frivolous flapper he and Leithen meet at the house of a friend. Miss Kore Arabin--under-dressed, over-painted, and barbarically ignorant of the graces of civilised society--antagonises both the friends. But then, surprisingly, she turns to Leithen for help. As he discovers more about her past, he begins to see Kore in a new and kinder light.

On the tiny island in the Aegean where her family ruled for three generations of cruelty and wickedness, Kore is now feared and hated as a witch. The villagers, ripe for any mischief, have turned away from Christianity to the half-remembered paganism of their forefathers: not the erudite Platonism of classical Greece but its original religion of blood in the moonlight. Kore's friends try to persuade her, but to no avail. Why is she bent on returning to Plakos? And what fate awaits her there at the hands of an angry people?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tolkien's Burning Bush

The study of imagery in stories is one that fascinates me, because it can be so difficult for a reader to see, but so easy for the author to include in his works. For example, if you'd never read Planet Narnia and didn't know its publication date, you wouldn't realise that the Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie--unlike the first two Narnia movies--was affected by the discoveries recorded in that book. But, since the filmmakers now knew that the sun and the colour gold was a major theme in that book, they were able to provide sun-soaked, golden imagery for the movie. Lewis, for example, never tells us what colour the dragon was in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; but the filmmakers made it a gold dragon, living in a valley of gold and of yellow rocks.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Following of the Star by Florence L Barclay

When this book was first recommended to me about a year and a half ago, I had to read The Rosary instead because I could not find The Following of the Star online. Soon after, I did in fact find a hard copy of this book at a sale, and I've just got around to reading it.

I have very fond memories of The Rosary. A drippily sentimental love story following two strong-minded people who are unable to accept each other until they learn humility and the necessity of putting God first, above each other, it was an unexpected treasure. The Following of the Star is--hurrah--more of the same.

David Rivers is a missionary to Central Africa who, having been shipped back to England with a life-threatening illness, is spending his short recovery as a supply preacher, or locum tenens (placeholder, if my Latin is any good) for the Rector of a little Hampshire village. Faced by a complacent and deaf congregation, David struggles to wake them up to a pursuit of holiness even as he prepares to return to Africa where he knows the climate will kill him. As he puts the finishing touches to one of his final sermons, on the Wise Men and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (representing charitable giving, worship, and suffering), he draws some consolation from the fact that a mysterious, beautiful lady has been visiting the church to listen attentively to his sermons. He has a feeling that the lady is somehow lost and desperately searching for answers, but when his sermon on the following of the star prompts her to turn to him for help, nothing could prepare him for the thing she asks him to do--or why he feels bound to help.

More of the story I cannot give away, except to warn you under no circumstances to glance ahead at the final pages!

This book is the third in a series of books by Florence Barclay all sharing some of the same characters, and references the previous one, The Rosary, a couple of times. Nevertheless, you don't have to read either The Rosary or The Mistress of Shenstone in order to appreciate this book. What ties the books together are their themes of the interplay of human and divine love. In many gooey Edwardian melodramas, the divine love is left out altogether or made to play second fiddle to the romantic love. That's why Florence L Barclay's books are so very refreshing--they recognise this fault, and work to repair it; not only in the stories themselves, but also in the characters:
She saw the happenings of the past in a new light.
First of all, Self had reigned supreme.
Then--when the great earthly love had ousted Self--she had placed David upon the throne.
Now the true and only King of Love drew near in risen power; and she realised that He was come, in deepest tenderness, to claim the place which should all along have been His own.
Yes, there were things that didn't seem quite right in this book. I didn't quite agree with all the exposition of the Bible, although most of it was entirely good and unobjectionable. I felt like the main characters sometimes acted a little dense, and I didn't believe that David's decision in the first half of the book was the right one. Still, the book doesn't present them as flawless, and hints that perhaps he wasn't as right as he thought he was:
God, Who alone can make all things work together for good, had overruled their great mistake, and was guiding them, across life's lonely desert, to the feet of the King.
I very much enjoyed The Following of the Star. Perhaps not quite as much as I liked The Rosary (sorry, people!) but it was a very pleasant read, and well worth the time.

Gutenberg etext

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park has long bewildered and repulsed critics. Lacking the dazzling sparkle of Pride and Prejudice, the sumptuous romanticism of Persuasion or Sense and Sensibility, and the ironic wit of Emma, Mansfield Park remains the ugly stepchild of the Austen canon--pitting, as it does, the dull and good Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram against the lively, witty, and good-natured Mary and Henry Crawford. Most critics still haven't forgiven Fanny for being passive, meek, grateful, and wise, and the heroine. All Austen's most lovable heroines, as we know, are vivacious yet dunderheaded, making misjudgements the way other young ladies make doilies. It seems unfair somehow that besides Anne Elliott of Persuasion, only Fanny Price--"insipid doormat" and "insufferable prig"--is held up as a model of virtuous womanhood.

In addition, Mansfield Park--in stark contrast to that darling of Austen's works, Pride and Prejudice--is a deeply serious book criticising the moral and religious shortcomings of the upper classes of modernist England, still with a didactic sting today. Stay with me: this review might run a little long, but there is so much goodness to dig out of Mansfield Park.

The Plot

At just ten years old, little Fanny Price is sent to live with her rich uncle Sir Thomas Bertram and his family at Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas is in many ways a kind and principled man, but he lives detached from his children and his distant manner frightens meek Fanny. Lonely, snubbed by her aunt Mrs Norris and her girl cousins Maria and Julia, Fanny finds an unexpected friend in her cousin Edmund, who by speaking with her and lending her books advances her education and shapes her mind.

Eight years later, with Sir Thomas away on a trip to his property in Antigua, the four Bertram children and Fanny have finished their education and the book, in a way, chronicles their final exams. While Tom Bertram has grown into a foolish wastrel, Edmund Bertram is awaiting ordination as a clergyman. Maria and Julia have grown into well-mannered pleasure-seekers with no real depth of principle, but Fanny--the indentured servant of her aunts and ignored by all her cousins except Edmund--has grown into a meek, sincere, and virtuous young woman. When the two Crawford siblings--Henry and Mary, wealthy, smart, vivacious, flirtatious, and completely up-to-date--arrive to stay with their sister Mrs Grant, the local vicar's wife, the combination of so much money, youth, and foolishness tests each of the young people. While Maria and Julia immediately fall in love with the rakish Henry Crawford--which causes their formerly serene relationship, untested by adversity, to become a petty rivalry--Edmund finds himself increasingly attracted by Mary. Fanny watches in concern as Henry and Maria flirt under the nose of Maria's dull and stupid (but wealthy) fiance Mr Rushworth, and as Mary attempts to seduce Edmund away from his chosen vocation as a minister: alone, she discerns the moral vacuity of the Crawford siblings. When Tom Bertram arrives with his friend Mr Yates, and the young friends determine to stage a risque play in the Mansfield Park billiard-room, the situation is only saved by Sir Thomas's unexpected return from Antigua. But Fanny's trial is only just begun: Edmund falls seriously in love with Mary Crawford, and Henry Crawford, his fun with the Bertram sisters over, tries to feed his vanity by stealing Fanny's heart as well. Will Edmund escape the ruin of his life and vocation, represented by a match with Mary Crawford? And will Fanny's youth, naivete, and inexperience resist Henry Crawford's increasingly serious attempts to gain her heart?

Allegory

One of my favourite things this time around Mansfield Park was the deep symbolism pervading the plot--symbolism so deep as to remind me of the Holy Grail passages which were my favourite thing in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. This is most obvious in two aspects of the book. The first is a scene set in a fenced wilderness-garden at Sotherton, Mr Rushworth's home, where the young people have gone to visit. Edmund, Mary, and Fanny, deep in conversation, walk to the end of the garden which is separated from the wilder lands by a sunken ditch, or ha-ha, and a gate. As Fanny is tired, Edmund seats her by the gate and eventually walks on with Mary. By degrees she leads him out of the garden altogether. Meanwhile Henry Crawford, Maria Bertram, and Maria's fiance Mr Rushworth arrive at the gate and desire to go out in order to take the view from a nearby hill. Mr Rushworth returns to the house for the key, but while he is gone Maria and Henry get tired of waiting and climb around the gate despite Fanny's protests. When Mr Rushworth arrives with the key, he finds himself left foolishly at the gate with the key, his intended wife already having left with the fascinating Henry Crawford. At first angry, he soon decides to follow them; later, Julia arrives, also in jealous pursuit, and climbs around the gate as well--leaving only Fanny to sit in the garden. This whole scene allegorises and foreshadows much of the rest of the book's plot: it bears a heavy, dreamlike quality, especially on second reading, and solidifies Fanny's position in the novel as the wise woman that doesn't transgress boundaries, the calm centre of the novel's turbulent action. Meanwhile Edmund's choice between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price contains all the ageless symbolism of the choice between the false bride and the true bride: between Lady Folly and Lady Wisdom, the False Church and the True Church.

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